Oliver Sacks claims that he wrote The Island of the Colorblind “in a sort of swoop, a single breath, in July 1995, it then grew. . .” (xx). He makes writing sound easy, as if already-formed sentences tumbled out of his head onto the page in the correct order. Yet, when he clarifies the process of reconstructing memories, we get a hint at the behind-the-scenes work required of communicating his Pacific island experiences:
“Writing, in these past months, has allowed me, forced me, to revisit these islands in memory. And since memory . . . is never a simple recording or reproduction, but an active process of recategorization—of reconstruction, of imagination, determined by our own values and perspectives—so remembering has caused me to reinvent these visits, in a sense, constructing a very personal, idiosyncratic, perhaps eccentric view of these islands . . . .” (xvii-xviii)
Like Sack’s exploration of the islands, his writing process follows a journey from discovery to synthesis or “reconstruction” and provides an example of important concepts about writing.
Concept 1: Writing is more than a transcription from the mind directly to paper. Writing is thinking on paper.
Concept 2: Writing is messy. Making meaning requires work to tease out what we really want to communicate.
Concept 3: Writing is re-writing. Because writing is a process of discovery, new ideas might erupt at any time. In the messiness, ideas collide and produce new ways of thinking about a subject. Re-visioning our ideas can lead to a more sophisticated structure. Look what happened to Sacks: his new ideas took the form of pages and pages of endnotes, creating a text of their own.
Concept 4: How we shape our ideas is influenced by our “values and perspectives.” Each reader brings unique experiences to a text. That’s why “write about what you know” has become a truism – if we connect what we are reading or researching to things we know or have a passion about, our writing stands a better chance of capturing our readers. Through our writing, we have an opportunity to share our perspective and challenge readers to think in new ways.
By writing Island of the Colorblind, Sacks has given us a glimpse of writing as thinking, as a process of meaning-making. Our challenge is to embrace the process.